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What Constitutes an Illegal Search?

Florida criminal defense attorneyAn illegal search is one in which a law enforcement officer invades a person’s legal expectation of privacy of his or her person, property, or papers. Case law in recent years has also explored the extent to which suspects have a reasonable expectation of privacy over the electronic contents of their phones and mobile devices.

Both the federal Constitution and Florida case law protect a defendant’s right to be free from illegal searches.

Exceptions to the Warrant Requirement Which Allow for Lawful Warrantless Searches

The general legal rule is that officers must have a warrant to enter a person’s house in order to conduct a search. But there are many exceptions to this rule. The United States Supreme Court has, for example, recognized an “exigent circumstances” exception to the warrant requirement. This allows police to enter a private residence without a warrant when they have probable cause to believe that evidence will be destroyed before a warrant can be obtained (see Kentucky v. King, 131 S.Ct. 1849). Other exceptions include a person’s consent to a search, entry of a premises while police are in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect, the protection of members of the public who may be in danger before a warrant can be obtained, and contraband which is in plain view of an officer who is lawfully present (i.e., has not already committed a search violation by entering the house without a warrant).

Various case law explores the specific parameters of these rules in detail. The “plain view” doctrine, for example, was given a detailed treatment by the United States Supreme Court in 1987 (see Arizona v. Hicks, 480 U.S. 321.). There, police officers had entered an apartment complex after receiving reports of shots fired. While searching for the suspects, victims, and evidence, officers entered a “squalid” apartment with nice stereo equipment.

Finding this suspicious, one officer moved a turntable out of the way in order to record the serial numbers on the equipment. Checks of the serial numbers proved that the equipment had been stolen. The defendant moved to suppress this evidence from being used at trial. Though the police had lawfully entered the apartment under a public safety exception, the defendant claimed that the serial numbers on the equipment did not properly fall under the “plain view” exception to the warrant requirement, because the officer had to move items around in order to record them.

This became an unlawful search. The trial court, the Arizona Court of Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court all agreed with this analysis. Each court focused on the officer’s interference with items within the house in order to determine that moving the equipment constituted a search.

This is just one of many cases that explore the various exceptions to the warrant requirement. Such exceptions are highly dependent upon the specific facts of a case. This is why it is so important to have the advice of an experienced criminal defense attorney when challenging an improper search. Our criminal defense attorneys have challenged many improper searches in order to prevent the results from being unfairly used against a defendant.

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